Five children, one of them a 6-year-old girl, were wounded yesterday afternoon in a drive-by shooting in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington, capping a six-hour stretch of violence in which four people were killed in separate incidents in Southeast Washington.

The drive-by shooting occurred about 3:30 p.m. at the corner of Fifth and O streets NW as a group of children stood in front of a picket fence. Police said someone in a passing car opened fire on the group and the car sped away as the children collapsed or staggered toward their homes.

The children were taken to Children's Hospital, where three of them were listed in serious condition last night. Hospital officials said they did not believe those wounds would prove fatal. The two other children were listed in fair condition; officials said one had been shot in the leg, the other in the arm.

"There are five kids, and there are a lot of holes," said Marty Eichelberger, director of emergency trauma services at Children's Hospital. "When they all came in, it was a challenge to even learn which of the youngsters were in the most serious condition."

Four of the wounded were boys who several neighbors said attend nearby Shaw Junior High School. Witnesses said the neighborhood was crowded with pedestrians, including many children returning from school, when the shooting began. Police said it was not clear how many gunmen were in the car.

Witnesses said a few of the wounded children collapsed amid the gunfire, while others staggered toward cars parked near the corner. "I ran up and saw them there, and they were all shot," said a sixth-grader who was nearby when the shootings occurred. "They leaned against the cars and checked to see where they had been hit."

The shootings took place on a residential street of apartments and row houses adorned with multicolored lights for the holidays, and for hours afterward people stood and spoke with outrage about the incident. One woman rushed to the scene from work after her daughter called and described the incident.

"There are a lot of damn fools out here," she said. "For them to just be driving by shooting just doesn't make any sense. When it comes to innocent babies, it's going too far."

Police said the motive for the shooting is unknown. The wounded children, three of whom live in the area, were identified as: Azelia Paul, 6, of the 1300 block of Fifth Street NW, who hospital officials said was in fair condition last night; Troy Gray, 15, of the 1200 block of Fourth Street NW, fair; John Olden, 13, of the 2400 block of B Street SE, serious; Clarence Richmond, 14, of the 1300 block of Fifth Street NW, serious; and Brian Lewis, 12, of the 700 block of 15th Street SE, serious.

Julianna Paul-Myers, Azelia Paul's mother, said last night that her daughter was hit in an artery in the right forearm, and that doctors were concerned about blood loss. But she said the little girl was in good spirits and had already made friends with the nurses caring for her.

Paul-Myers said Azelia was walking home from Montgomery Elementary School, just a block away, when she was wounded. "You take a chance every day," her mother said. "You never know. I can't keep her safe. She's got to be exposed to the outside world. She's got to go to school."

On Tuesday, a senior at the District's Eastern High School was stabbed and critically wounded outside the school cafeteria during an argument with another student that apparently began over a bag of corn chips. Police have not made an arrest in the stabbing, one of the few violent incidents to occur inside a D.C. high school in recent years, though there have been dozens of shootings and stabbings on street corners near schools.

Last night, several hours after the drive-by shooting, a group of about 20 people from the First Rising Mount Zion Baptist Church sang carols as they walked along Fifth Street NW. The Rev. Ernest Gibson said the group had planned to go out singing elsewhere, but chose Fifth Street because of the violence.

Addressing God in a prayer before the group, Gibson said, "We know that you love the children who were shot here this afternoon. We pray for them."

Most of the District's violence occurs late at night or early in the morning, and the police department has spent the last three months redeploying its forces to counter this trend. A 100-member unit formed in October is designed to respond quickly to reports of trouble and investigate the sources of violence.

But within the last month, there have been killings during the afternoon and early everning. A man was shot and killed while talking on a public telephone in Northwest, and another was slain while sitting in a barber's chair in Southeast. The homicide toll for the year is 471, compared with 437 for all of 1989.

"This is crazy, when stuff like this happens during the day," said one senior commander who has served more than 20 years. "Very seldom did the violence start before 9 o'clock at night. You can't put a finger on it."

The three shooting deaths occurred between 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. in the low-income Washington Highlands section of Southeast, south of St. Elizabeths Hospital and near Southern Avenue. All three were within several blocks of one another and three elementary schools. All the victims were shot from behind, but police investigators said it was too early to determine whether the deaths were connected.

"We have to go back and we have to compare notes," said a commander assigned to a fatal shooting at 3 p.m.

Although the method was not unusual -- being shot from behind is common in drug-related slayings -- the fact that all three occurred during the day is highly unusual, investigators said.

At 9:26 a.m., an officer on foot patrol heard four shots fired near the 300 block of Livingston Terrace SE. A second officer responding to the scene found the body in the parking lot of an apartment house, next to a pile of dirt.

The victim, who was 23, had been shot once in the back of the head and once on the left side of the upper back. Police did not release his name because relatives had not been notified.

A witness told investigators that a white car carrying two or three people sped out of the parking lot and headed east. Detectives later found the car abandoned in another parking lot about a block away.

A police source said the car was rented Monday, possibly at National Airport, by a woman with a Minnesota address. The car had temporary tags from Virginia.

At 1:45 p.m., police were called to the 1000 block of Wahler Place SE, where they found Brandon Keith, 23. Keith, of the 600 block of Condon Terrace SE, had been shot in the head; he died a short time later.

At 2:20 p.m., investigators also responded to the 3200 block of 15th Place SE, where Donna Biggsbe 23, was found fatally stabbed. Detectives later arrested Linarde Lawton, 25, and charged him with first-degree murder while armed. Police said the two lived together, and that the stabbing apparently was the result of a domestic dispute.

While detectives were at both scenes, police broadcast another report of a shooting in the vicinity. In that case, the body of a man believed to be about 18 years old was found fatally shot in a lot next to 444 Condon Terrace SE. Six school buses were parked in the lot, which neighbors said the owner uses for storage, and the body was found near the rear of one bus, not far from a trash bin.

A woman approached detectives at the scene and asked whether the dead person was her brother. "Is it Andre? Is it Andre? Oh, please," said the woman.

Two homicide investigators took her to the body, but the victim turned out to be that of a friend. She was led away by a police officer as the van from the medical examiner's office arrived.

Investigators also are looking for suspects in the shooting death of Jamal M. Thrash, 17, who was fatally wounded during an apparent robbery attempt.

The shooting occurred about 1 a.m. in the 200 block of 14th Place NE Thrash lived in the 1300 block of Constitution Avenue NE, about two blocks from the scene.

Staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Eric Charles May and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.